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Curating Photography: An interview with Tim Clark

9 March 2019

In a world saturated with imagery, the role of curator is becoming ever more vital. Curating Photography explores a changing industry, through conversations with those who shape what we see.

Interview by Harry Flook
This week I spoke to purveyor of all things photographic, Tim Clark, in the run up to FORMAT festival. Clark co-curated this year’s lead exhibition Mutable/Multiple, which features a promising line-up of playful documentarians: Anne Golaz, Edgar Martins, Stefanie Moshammer, Max Pinckers, Virginie Rebetez and Amani Willett.
Since founding 1000 Words Photography Magazine a decade ago, Clark has made a name for himself as one of contemporary photography’s clearest thinkers and most committed advocates. He has curated numerous solo exhibitions of artists such as Alec Soth, Julia Margaret Cameron, Martin Parr and Peter Watkins, and has also written for the likes of FOAMTIME LightboxPhotoworks, and The British Journal of Photography, amongst his many other activities.
In this interview we talk about how he balances differing job roles, his perspective on curation, and FORMAT festival.

Harry Flook: Your current bio is a daunting mix of job roles. Aside from the obvious headache of time management, what’s it like having to constantly switch gears between being an educator, writer, editor and curator? And which is your favourite hat to wear?

Tim Clark: Well, they all feed into and are born out of each other in reality. I think being able to write and edit is a pre-requisite for curating so, like many of my colleagues in my position, I incorporate those activities into some sort of ‘practice’ as additions not alternatives. The various teaching that I have done has been more sporadic to be fair: as associate lecturer on the MA Photography and Visual Design at NABA Milano or though working in partnership with London College of Communication to lead the first Photography & Curation short course at The Photographers’ Gallery, London that examines the various ways curating can shape our encounter with and understanding of the photographic image. Participants are exposed to a number of key philosophical as well as practical insights relating to the display, organisation and public dissemination of photographs. The aim is for them to gain a greater insight into the fundamental decisions and modes of thinking that go into curating exhibitions and writing about or with photographs. This has been really productive in crystallising a lot of my own reading and research into the under explored but ever expanding field of photography curation.

From 'I Can Be Her' ©Stefanie Moshammer
From ‘I Can Be Her’ ©Stefanie Moshammer

Suffice to say, since leaving the museum job 3 years ago I have had a very active and fluid time in my creative life, with really mad pockets of busyness at certain points, such is the nature of being freelance. The truth is I enjoy the different frequencies and aspects of all the various roles you mention – the quiet contemplation of writing and sifting of editing versus the immediacy and contact time with students and the ideas that interest them versus the direct, hands-on collaboration with artists and photographers in helping to give form, structure and a narrative to their exhibitions.

HF: You’ve been running 1000 Words for over 10 years, alongside curating a number of photography exhibitions, such as this year’s FORMAT Festival. How is working with physical exhibitions different from curating for online platforms?

TC: I’m not so sure we can speak of truly ‘curating’ online platforms; I may have said this as a proposition or even provocation in the past but I don’t believe it to be the case. The main reason for this being that actual curating is much more than just the process and act of selecting, collating and even contextualising content – those aspects still only make up just one part of the role. Anyone who has organised a substantial exhibition or devised an artistic programme will attest to the fact that you will have to don many hats as creative, producer, coordinator, mediator, diplomat, fundraiser, and so on.

From 'Out of the Blue' ©Virginie Rebetez
From ‘Out of the Blue’ ©Virginie Rebetez

However, it’s true that the term now has an expanded meaning beyond the traditional museum or gallery context. And although many curators are increasingly harnessing and exploring complex and interactive web technologies very effectively, it seems to have lost some of its cachet. Indeed many people in general seem to enjoy the title of curator in the present moment within which culture is operating, but I think it’s been wrongly commandeered to describe all manner of activities such as Instagram feeds, music playlists, travel itineraries, menus, bedrooms or experiences more generally – to imply a judicial selection of arrangement. These are really only forms of ‘lifestyle culture’. The curatorial turn clearly has a lot to answer for!

HF: FORMAT’s lead exhibition has been titled Mutable, Multiple, and is billed as investigating the fake news phenomenon, questioning truth and fiction in the Trump era. It’s a subject I’ve noticed popping up a lot in contemporary photographic circles, perhaps because it chimes so nicely with the question of photographic truth and representation. How did you and festival director, Louise Fedotov-Clements, come to the idea?

From 'What Photography has in Common with an Empty Vase' ©Edgar Martins
From ‘What Photography has in Common with an Empty Vase’ ©Edgar Martins

TC: Last summer Louise approached me to collaborate on an exhibition in the context of 1000 Words’ 10th anniversary celebrations – she’s always been a great supporter and advocate for the publication and my other work in general. Early discussions circled around celebrating some of the magazine’s key features and milestones from the past decade, with ideas of somehow translating the experience and performativity of an online magazine into a physical space forming the basis of our conversation; we were thinking of something along the lines of exploring the relationship between photography and literature, text and image interplays etc. However, we had the impression that this approach might be too meta or even navel gazing at the expense of a slightly wider view (bearing in mind 1000 Words was already due to release the special print edition and had some events and celebrations lined up across the remainder of 2018).
So we decided to thematise an exhibition based on a number of artists who had been featured in the magazine over the years, whose works, in one way or another, challenge prevalent modes of documentary and storytelling. The title we arrived at was Mutable, Multiple with the aim of exploring how narrative, history, memory and myth can be recalibrated as a way of coming to terms with complex and changing realities. A story of stories, the exhibition looks at the narrative potential of photography to engage with subjects, yet without adopting straightforward strategies. Leaning more towards fiction, interpretation, suggestion and trickery in order to insist on the ambiguity of photographic evidence, the six artists all examine the limits of representation and insert self-reflection actively within their work. Brought together in the context of Mutable, Multiple their projects occupy a hybrid documentary space between image and information, fiction and fact, where juxtapositions of interviews, literature, press material, news footage, archival interventions and staged photography are the new norm.
From 'Margins of Excess' ©Max Pinckers
From ‘Margins of Excess’ ©Max Pinckers

Mutable, Multiple also brings to bear issues of entrapment and disappearance, fantasy and escape, exile and longing. The various ways in which each project deals with fractured, disharmonious lives that are constantly in a state of becoming are made apparent, allowing the viewer to meditate on the situations in which such individuals achieve visibility and, some cases, invisibility, in the world.

HF: Much of the photography you share through 1000 Words responds to contemporary issues. Can you talk about the role of curation in making sense of, and highlighting, important trends in the current work being made by photographers?

TC: I think it’s important for the topics and themes that I choose within my exhibitions to always be pertinent to our contemporary society and/or the human condition. Otherwise things get a bit dry and can suffer from critical deep freeze when what really matters right now are the answers art can offer. The writer and curator Susan Bright recently talked about her predilection for exhibitions that have emotion, honesty, humanity and transparency at their core, which is a sentiment that I whole-heartedly share. If I am able to get that level of intimacy across, while at the same time testing out different curatorial strategies with each exhibition, then it keeps my curatorial practice on course.

Corbeau ©Anne Golaz
From ‘Corbeau’ ©Anne Golaz

Other curators may feel more of an obligation to make sense of important trends in the current work made by photographers, and in that regard it might be useful to think about the expanded use of the word curator as that of a filter, editor or guide, shining a spotlight on new tendencies – such as photographers altering the surface of the photograph, to give just one example. However, I’m personally more inclined to think in terms of attitudes, critical methods or gestures that bind certain sets of photographers together. So the artists presented in Mutable, Multiple, in essence, seem to acknowledge, what Hanno Hardt describes in Constructing Photography: Fiction as Cultural Evidence (2007) as, ‘the documentary character of photographs only as a conventional idea, or a point of departure for an argument that insists categorically on the ambiguity of photographic evidence and embraces the creative challenge of variable truths.’
FORMAT festival is open from 15 March — 14 April 2019.

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